Currently, my classes are a blended design with traditional lecturing sprinkled with online and collaborative learning elements. Each year they shift a little more on the blended continuum towards the ‘all technology’ end from the illustration provided by Bates in Teaching in a Digital Age (Chapter 9-Click to view). My goal is not to reach the end of the line, but to find that sweet spot where I feel that I am providing the best experience for each of my students. The biggest changes I have noticed as the shift to the right has been occurring is increased educational engagement, ownership over one’s own learning, and better performances and retention of learning. I do not yet think though that I have found the sweet spot, but I know where I want to go, and now it’s just a matter of making those extra tweaks!

First of all, a little background is needed on what I consider to be a couple major changes that I have incorporated into my classes over the last several years. And, interestingly enough, what I think are some of the biggest game changers do not involve technology at all, and this is why I’m not just moving along the spectrum because “yay technology”, low-tech can be impactful as well, but technology has been providing me with better means of making education more personalized and tailored to each student.

Photo Credit: kellyhogaboom Flickr via Compfight cc

Let me introduce you to the interactive notebook! In each of my classes, students have a notebook. The first page is a table of contents, and after that, each lesson gets two pages (and only two). The right hand page is input which is where notes and information from class goes, and the left page is output, where students think about what they learned, make connections, create illustrations or organizational diagrams, come up with mnemonics, whatever it is they need to do to help transition their learning from short-term memory to long-term. We use the cornell style of note-taking on our input pages. It’s not so simple as just to tell students this is how we’re doing things from now on…a lot of work has gone into training students how to take proper notes, to write a concise summary for each lesson, to devise questions they should be able to answer from each class, how to best make connections with material. Students must colour-code their notes as well. I have learned each semester how to better help my students get the most out of their notebooks, but what I love is that I almost write no notes on the board. My students must listen and process. I have seen student achievement increase quite significantly in some cases, and there is a strong correlation between the quality of ones notebook and their performance. I’ll get back to this shortly.

Another change I introduced at the same time I went to these interactive notebooks was making the majority of our work cumulative. I really reinforce that we learn for mastery, not just to see how well they can cram their short term memory. We review and revisit material throughout the entire semester. This repetition has improved learning immensely and I love seeing students who struggled with something at first get it due to us not ever simply ‘moving on’.

Now, in order to support students with these demands, I tell them that we have no homework for the semester with the exception of their notebooks. Commit to the learning process and I will commit to giving you class time for our work. I also make most Fridays a day to attend to what students need to do. Many of my students take a MOOC as their independent study project for the semester and many use Friday’s for this purpose, but others know what they have been struggling with and they will form collaborative groups and they go over things, they quiz each other, students will be at the whiteboard teaching each other, we will spend part of the day doing review games like science Pictionary or Taboo. It’s wonderful to see. What I have really seen is myself and my students change the focus to the learning process. Once they are trained on how to learn, they can pick up the content easily at any point in their lives.

I really wish I had some pictures of my students notebooks to include in this blog so you can get a visual, but I know most of my students do not throw them out or burn them at the end of the semester because they become so personal to them. I know of other teachers who do similar style notebooking, and a teacher who I follow on Twitter (@thebiospace) does interactive notebooking with her students and here is a page that shows the data on student performance before and after implementing an interactive notebooking style (you have to click through the haiku deck to see it).

All of this I have discussed is low-tech and I mentioned that I have been moving to increase technology and still want to increase our usage, so what have I done and where do I want to go? Well, the most obvious things are having students participate in MOOC’s, and we use various tools and apps for projects, and as each semester goes by I find new things that we incorporate in. But with my students becoming more independent, they tap into resources more on their own, I just give them the time and encouragement to seek their own resources and along with their own engagement I do not see students misusing the technology.

Where I still want to go, is that my students have become more reflective and I really push the idea of community learners (John Green’s TEDTalk really inspired me on this), and I also want to provide students with opportunities for meaningful learning and I think, rather I know, technology can aid me on these fronts.

In terms of technology and reflection and community, I envision myself having an online classroom presence. I don’t know yet exactly the logistics of it all, but my current vision is having my own personal website dedicated to science and learning, particularly catering to my classes. On this site I would include videos and helpful resources pertaining to my classes, I would have my own blog and musings about science and just my life in general (that’s that relationship building piece), and I also think I want to get my students blogging about their learning and I could include these on the site as well for that community and reflective piece. My students are becoming more aware of their learning and include it in their notebooks and in discussion with their peers, but the audience is narrow and I would like them to expand their thoughts to the entire class.

My science instruction has also moved to more meaningful activities, and I have become big on tools such as arduino’s which are affordable ways to allow students to really perform investigations that they just can’t do otherwise and can bring in coding and very multi-disciplinary approaches to learning. I have a couple of Backyard Brains kits that my students use to do investigations in neuroscience. I want my students to do real science, and then even use technology to collaborate with other science classes around the province and maybe further and have other classes peer review articles and mimic the true scientific process! Aaahh…I’m so excited!! This is how I know I’m in the right line of work. Friday night, the start of a week of holidays, I was planning this stuff all out!

I found this one particular quote from Chapter 9 of Bates’ Teaching in a Digital Age to be quite meaningful to me:

“Thus every instructor now needs to ask the question: if I can move most of my teaching online, what are the unique benefits of the campus experience that I need to bring into my face-to-face teaching? Why do students have to be here in front of me, and when they are here, am I using the time to best advantage?”

I have found that students need the most instruction in how to learn, why learning is fun and important, how to collaborate with others, etc. This is what I focus on in my face to face time. We of course learn content along the way, but we can move through the course faster and retain better. I’d say that focus on the process, and the content comes naturally! My focus is on generating a love for learning in students, and once you do that, they figure out the answers to the questions on their own.

Live long and prosper